Ella Lesatele, the author and illustrator of The Absent Classic Series has been writing and drawing since she was a little kid. An art-school graduate, and mother of two small children, she’s also an expatriate who lives with her family in Dubai, where she will be for another year and a half. In addition to being a writer of talent and vision, Ella is good at many other things, such as playing badminton and making apple pie, and terrible at others, such as driving a car and having patience . Imagine this conversation taking place in the lovely room where Ella’s desk is located.
How’s your work coming along these days? What have you recently sent out into the world?
The last big project I finished was a book called Folk Tales of the Bezai – a 10,000 word novella I wrote, illustrated, and made into a handmade book. It’s the third installment of a larger project, called The Absent Classic, where I’m dabbling with the idea of books as a form of craft.
Why do you write and illustrate under pseudonyms?
I feel like using pseudonyms gives me a little room to stretch out and experiment with different styles and take the stories I work on in different directions from each other. I’m easily bored, and I have trouble sticking to one theme or voice – so speaking and drawing from different points of view is ideal for me.
Why do you call The Absent Classics “fake books”?
Because they’re not “real books”, in my mind. They’re not published, or mass-produced, and they haven’t survived any peer reviews or editing. My Absent Classics look like books, but I doubt they could compete with real books in a library or bookstore.
People who like my work sometimes try to push me towards writing real books, and maybe someday I’ll get my act together and write something worth mass-production, but for now I’m more interested in operating slightly outside that world.
What are your influences?
I’m kind of chronically distractible – I keep a scrapbook/ notebook of all the stuff I come across in print media that I think is worth exploring, and it’s a giant mess of newspaper articles, photos, letters to editors, book reviews, and other peoples’ illustrations. And I read a lot of books, and look at a lot of art, and those send me off in different directions as well. So my own work is also a little bit of a jumble – it tends to pick up flavors from a lot of the different things I come across.
In terms of writers, I’m always interested in writers who illustrate their own books. I’ve read everything by or about Edward Gorey I can find; I also like Edward Lear’s illustrated work, and PD Eastman’s picture books. There’s a kind of odd symbiosis between writing and illustrating, you know? When they both work together, they inform each other, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
Can you describe the process of making a book?
Well, I start with an idea that I think is workable – usually it’s something bizarre and potentially funny like What kind of operas would a lovelorn circus strongman, circa 1900, write? And then I spend a couple weeks tracking down everything I can find about Edwardian circus strongmen and operas. Then I draft a foreword to the book, where I lay out the significance of the work, and a little bit about the writer, and how the manuscript came to the attention of The Absent Classic, and why the book is an indispensable addition to the sophisticated reader’s library.
I usually split the writing and illustrating into two halves and set a schedule of how many drawings or words I need per week. After four weeks, I have a rough draft. Then I spend the next month making changes (I usually scrap the whole foreword at that point and re-write it to fit the draft), fact-checking, and redoing or finishing illustrations. When I have a final draft, I make printing proofs. When the proofs are done I print a test copy and if the test comes out properly collated and justified I do my print run. Then it takes about two weeks to get those copies sewn, glued, and bound into covers; when they’re all dry and beautiful I bring the whole batch to the post office and mail them off to the subscribers. And then I have some chocolate cake and start thinking about grand new ideas.
How are your books marketed and distributed?
I wrestle with this all the time. The part of me that’s been unemployed for four years says I should sell books – lots of them! – and farm out the production part to a real press and turn a profit and buy my husband his own golf course.
But the thing about my books that I really love is how personal they are. They’re handmade and they have a lot of soul in them; even though they’re copies of the same book, each one is unique. For various reasons, I’m not comfortable selling them – there’s the issue of transferring money overseas, charging for shipping, refunding from overseas, export taxes, etc – so I decided to make a subscription list of customers, and barter instead of sell them.
And I have to say, this system is really working for me – I’ve been very, very lucky. I haven’t lost a book to Customs or Homeland Security yet, I’ve gotten some great books in exchange for my Absent Classics, and my subscribers are really generous with feedback and support, which eggs me on to create better books.
People love to hear how writers overcome difficulties– the long slog of getting from a brilliant idea to the end of a work, the strings of rejection so long they could circumnavigate the globe, the mean reviews, the weird reactions of loved ones to your work, the moment you see your book on the remainder pile. Can you talk about the dark nights of the soul and how you kept going, even though the lights seemed to be out?
Well, my dark nights are usually just when I send out my books out to subscribers and get bad or indifferent feedback – all the people who subscribe to the series are readers whose opinions I really respect. So when someone points out that I have a gaping hole in the narrative or a drawing that doesn’t fit, I usually realize they’re right, then sulk for a couple days. But since my stakes are pretty low (my overriding motivation for the project is self-entertainment) I tend to recover pretty quickly, after a few hot chocolates and a good moan.
Why do you suppose so many people want to know where you get your ideas?
Well, to be honest, nobody has ever asked me where I get my ideas. No, wait, when I sent a copy of A Compendium of Imaginary Saints, the first book I put together myself, to my parents, my mom asked, “What on earth gave you the idea to have a gold cover?” but I don’t think that’s the same thing.
If anyone ever did ask me Where do you get your ideas? I would say, “From inside my head, just like everyone else.” Then I would smile.
How do you balance the rest of your life with your writing life?
Poorly. I feel like I’m constantly struggling between what I need to do with what I want to do. It’s like there’s an angel sitting on one shoulder saying, “Your baby just barfed on her last clean shirt – maybe some clean laundry is in order? And, while you’re at it, the toddler might need a snack?” and a devil on the other shoulder saying, “It’s hot! The baby can go naked! Let’s go write an 800-word footnote on sea monsters!”
Talk about the books you’ve loved.
My favorite books are nineteenth-century novels. I love most of the big Victorian writers, but I also have real fondness is for magazine and pulp writing of that period too – there’s a kind of delicious purple prose that only exists in the pages of Blackpool’s Ladies’ Companion, under titles like The Vengence of the Spanish Governess; or, The Sunlit Garden Lane and the Beaux That Waited There.
I had kind of an odd upbringing, bookwise. My mother has really good taste in fiction, and made sure I got all the classics when I was in high school and college – I remember borrowing her London Folio editions of the Bronte novels, but she also supplied me with paperbacks of Somerset Maugham and DH Lawrence and Austen novels. My father hates – I mean really, really loathes – the Victorians, but keeps a huge library of old National Geographics, and I grew up reading those too.
The books I love most of all are old (pre- 1960) Modern Library editions, the ones with the Rockwell Kent endpapers. They’re good reading books, but they also have a nice feel – they’re a good weight, and the dust jackets are usually gorgeous, and they smell good – they’re the perfect books. Every book I put together is a little homage to the Modern Library.
Do you think most writing is autobiographical?
No. I mean, mine isn’t. I don’t think it is, anyway. I mean, all of us share some common human experiences, and every writer draws on those, but I don’t write about my childhood or real people in my life.
What other jobs have you had, besides your job as a writer?
I spent a summer working as a gardener before my first year of college, and during college I was an art-store clerk, ESL tutor, hotel maid, lab monitor, and shoe salesgirl. After college I began a career as a temp – I worked for a tractor-trailer company, then a couple giant soulless corporations, then as a museum intern, then as an assistant seamstress for a dance company – until I moved overseas on a non-work visa. So now I hang out at home and take care of my son and daughter. The hours are awful, but I like the kids.
Incidentally, I think every writer owes it to themself to have a couple really terrible jobs. The material you can get from, say, selling ugly shoes for a few months, is far more valuable than whatever paycheck they give you.
What are you working on now? What will you be tackling in the future?
Right now I’ve just broken ground on Volume 4 of The Absent Classic. It’s called A Guide to Lost Colors, and it’s about a Victorian art historian who’s obsessed with rare artists’ pigments and has a hobby of tracking them down in his area of expertise, the pre-Renaissance Dutch painters. As he collects lost colors over the course of his life, he also experiences the gradual loss of his eyesight, and when he dies in the 1930s it is revealed that he has been blind since the turn of the century, and has written his Guide relying entirely on memory and research. It’s very fluid at this point – I’m still wrestling with ideas for the illustrations (how can a blind person produce illustrations?) and researching pigments. But I think it’s going to be the best book yet.
In the future, after we move back to the States in 2009, I’d like to become a little more professional about bookmaking – there’s a lot about the craft I don’t understand. I would also like to graduate from working on the kitchen table to having a real studio, or at least my own desk. And then, ultimately, finding some way to make a living off my work; after all, I have two children to put through beauty school, and a golf course to build.
Ella lives and works in Dubai and can be reached at Box of Books.